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Thursday 27 August 2020

Starting Again

The sleeping baby strapped to my chest suddenly spasms and clasps me in a gesture I call “crabbing”. I stop to exclaim.

“Did you fall off your branch?” I ask my daughter.

The baby sleeps on.

But I know she will wake soon: sleep starts (or hypnic jerks) like this tend to happen when someone is falling to sleep or waking up, as their mind wrestles between consciousness and unconsciousness – like so many other sleep phenomena (e.g. sleep paralysis). And so far, experience has agreed with the science.

But what are these “sleep starts”?

Thursday 13 August 2020

The speed of time

This time will pass. Or so they say. We believe we’re travelling forward, how do we really know? If time changed direction, could we even tell? In days, and weeks, and months like these, time seems to stand still.

...Why is that?

Sometimes, time seems to stand still. Unsplash (CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay)

There are lots of theories for why time seems to move at different speeds. Some of them are related to age. Afterall, didn’t time always move much, much more slowly when you were a child? The proportional theory suggests that our perception of time is linked to the constant that is our time alive: “the apparent length of an interval at a given epoch of a man's life is proportional to the total length of the life itself. A child of 10 feels a year as 1/10 of his whole life — a man of 50 as 1/50”, whilst the biological theory proposes that time is linked to our metabolism, which gradually slows down as we age. Or perhaps our heartbeat. Or breathing. Or body temperature. Experiments (some of which are ethically dubious!) seem to back it up; for example, a fever can make you experience time as longer... or is that just because being ill sucks?

Monday 3 August 2020

Isolation and the Brain

As babies, we are all born with vastly more neural connections than we need[1], and these connections get 'pruned' as we go through life, cutting out the unused ones, strengthening most the ones we use daily[2].

As social animals, we learn best and develop neural connections by interacting with others. So what happens when our brains are isolated – when we don't see or interact with other people for... months?


One BBC Horizon experiment subjected volunteers to 48 hours isolation in complete darkness: devoid of external sensory stimulti, they started to hallucinate. In the equivalent on Channel 5 (In Solitary: The Anti-Social Experiment), participants took in three items to distract themselves and fuel their resolve. Some people took in personal items that carried meaning – but quickly found these intensified feelings of desperation and homesickness; others took in activities to keep them physically or mentally stimulated, and it was these that were found to be most effective. Scientists think this is an essential coping mechanism for staying mentally healthy in isolation. In the longest isolation experiment, undertaken by Stefania Follini, who spent 130 days underground, the interior designer occupied herself with martial arts and decorating her cave.